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Leon Golub Powerplay: The Political Portraits

by Jon Bird, Curator
National Portrait Gallery, London, England
18 March - 25 September 2016
Exhibit website: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/display/2016/leon-golub-powerplay-the-political-portraits.php

Reviewed by Giovanna Costantini

Suppose someone comes along who does not know 'bridge,' and there is no bridge to which I could point and utter the word. I would then draw an image of the scheme of a bridge which of course is already a particular bridge, just to remind him of some schema known to him such as 'transition' from one side of the river to the other.--Hannah Arendt, "Imagination," Seminar on Kant's Critique of Judgment. [1]

Despite the many psychological and semiotic re-codings of American modernism, it continues to bear imprints of Clement Greenberg's "canon" of 1939-40 that derived from the nineteenth century European tradition of l'art pour l'art allied to a reactionary academic and social program. Greenberg identified three principal features of American modernism that in certain ways amalgamated the tendencies that had evolved in Europe from Édouard Manet to Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. These were: aesthetic innovation and originality within a given cultural and formalist grammar; tendencies that reflect the process and societal impact of modernization; and an ambivalent "moral autonomy" with respect to historical relations with both capitalism and modern (mass) society. A self-critique of art's as a form of essentialism frequently took the form of an opposition between representation and abstraction. Interwoven into the canonical narrative was a belief in the expressive and existential capacity of art to operate as a method of individuation along with a set of other features. These include the pursuit of effects of detachment and depersonalization, mechanization, and technology; an emphasis on surface reflexivity; a tendency towards transcendentalism; and attention to the internal ordering and relationship of parts in tension with, in painting, undifferentiated composition. It is from such values that one dominant, to many minds, exclusionary monolith of modernism came to be erected (one that paralleled American post-war hegemony of the 1950's and 1960's), a superstructure considered by many to be at odds with the movement's resistance to totalitarian extension.

Most critics recognize that it was during the 1960's that the central tenets of American modernism began to erode at the height of Greenberg's and Michael Fried's self-conscious defense of abstraction. Their formalist emphasis on unitary integration and impersonal flatness was marginalized by persistent figuration and post-war European expressionism; kitsch and realism's "re-complication" of the pictorial field; and by new propositions bound to Minimalism, process and anti-form. John Cage's challenge to authorship, materiality, and internal structure, seen also in Alison Knowles' "Make a Salad" of 1962, as in the work of artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol did much to undermine the dominance of formalist theory. Others have joined critics such as Rosalind Krauss and Carol Duncan, who attacked modernism's myths of originality and "centeredness" and its position of "privileged" and gendered hegemony in dismantling Greenberg's paradigm.

There are reasons to regard the "historic moment" as relevant in reconstructing a definition of modernism and to confront the role of history as the canyon (versus the canon) of art's operative field. In this field, modernism's aestheticism should be tempered, indeed reconceived, less in terms of purification and autonomy than as purgation and cultural reckoning. In the aftermath of two world wars in the United States, 1968 signaled a "historical moment," an instant in which the product of history is universalized as the human condition. 1968 marked a fracture comparable to the outbreak of World War I in Europe, an event whose reverberations of disillusionment still resound throughout the modern world. 1968 was the year of the My Lai Massacre and the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, student riots and general strikes in France, the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR, and the death of the artist Marcel Duchamp. 1968 is often cited as the crucible of American modernism, for it coincides with the onset of American disillusionment owing to the loss of humane leadership, with prolonged and ever escalating military conflict and the growing awareness of involvement in a war that could never be won. Just as Europe recoiled in the aftermath of Auschwitz, for many aestheticism became indefensible following the carpet-bombing and chemical defoliation of Vietnam. Lying as it does beyond the canon, Maya Lin's "Memorial" of 1982 may present a fitting closure to Greenbergian modernism, for it lies beyond the limits of its ruinous history where it mourns the loss of once young and vigorous lives. It recalls Fried's remark about Frank Stella that "He wanted to paint like Velasquez but he realized he could only paint stripes."

The line of demarcation dividing modernism from post-modernism, dividing the cult of originality and transcendence from pluralism and kitsch, should be abolished. We all know that modernism's mystical trajectory extends from Frantiŝek Kupka to Vija Celmins with a path of abjection running from Duchamp to Damian Hirst. The early twentieth century is no less diverse than the nineteenth in its permanence of realisms from George Grosz to Ben Shahn, Alfaro Siqueiros to Max Beckmann, Jacob Riis to Dorothea Lange. In this light, to position modernism's claims of subjectivity and psychological introspection, to say nothing of its grammatical stylizations, against postmodernism's anti-aesthetic, its polemical, process-driven resistance, is to ignore a shared thematic unity within the confines of the twentieth century. Such unity constitutes modernism's essential, reflective quality in the presence of history, a centenary history that is bound by pluralities of critique.

This distinction - modern/post-modern - should be replaced with an enlarged, assimilative view of modernism that asserts both the historical as well as the dramatic character of the art of the twentieth century over its scenic adaptations. I propose that one interpretation of modernism be based on a model of Aristotelian tragedy outlined in Aristotle's Poetics as a performance aimed at the pursuit of universal truth through the exercise of aesthetic judgment. Such a model of tragedy, distinct from Nietzschean prototypes of Dionysian subjectivity and existential isolation, seeks determination of moral purpose through actions that are of a certain magnitude with respect to the particulars of history, actions advanced by an artist-protagonist as a corporeal member of a generational and interdependent society. Herein, the twentieth century represents a scene of contest and bodily suffering, a site of disfigured realism in which to effect anagnorisis - discovery - along with catharsis - a cleansing of the body or the spirit through purgation. This is a site moreover in which to move the viewer from ignorance to knowledge by means of recognition, the recognition of moral purpose that tragic magnitude, requires of all art that is born of a dehumanizing era. It is this socially reflective quality that joins Philip Evergood to Jacob Lawrence, Käthe Kollwitz to Gerhard Richter, and Santiago Sierra to Carrie Mae Weems.

Varieties of post-modern views reflect underlying historical relationships to modernism. Craig Owens, who interrogates modern art's allegorical impulse, asserts post-modernism's distance from history and an emptying of original meaning attached to emblematic signs that is indicative of an absence of artistic intuition. Daniel Bell refers also to 'the eclipse of distance' that substitutes impact and sensation for contemplation and cultural judgment; a concern with personality rather than moral character; and an emphasis on the self over consensual standards as signs of modernism's exhaustion.Jürgen Habermas insists on modernism's resistance to failed propositions of the past, and advocates an aesthetic modernity dedicated to "communicative rationality" as a societal imperative. Frederic Jameson refers to the "bracketing" of history, the substitution of simulacra for the original, the waning of subjectivity and emotion. My position does not oppose concepts that inform post-modern criticism, its divisive, variegated perspectives and deconstructive complexities. Rather it seeks to identify a more coherent art historical and cultural framework for modernism, one that reasserts the unitary social bases of art as articulated by Meyer Schapiro. [2] These are foundations that engage aesthetically from within a specific temporal history and reflect T. J. Clark's call for art that is created in relation to wider currents of society, especially historical currents that have continued to erode the social fabric from which common experience and meaning is generated throughout the modern age.

One of the bridges joining modernism to post-modernism must be located in the historical particulars of social realism. Hannah Arendt in "The Social Question" called attention to a reality associated with a feeling of injustice stemming from a condition of darkness that lay behind appearances. This sort of realism, one that lends itself to an understanding of the human condition in extremis, was described by Renato Poggioli in The Theory of the Avant-Garde as infrarealism, a quality bound to dehumanizing tendencies that lower reality to the level of the "raw, unformed, subhuman and vile." Such a formula for infrarealism was identified by José Ortega y Gasset as a characteristic of avant-garde poetry, one that displayed a taste for the denigrating image. The denigrating image utilized derogatory imagery not only satirically, but also lyrically, to render impurities of reality from which emotion ultimately springs. It employed the pejorative image not only as a vehicle for grotesque representation, but also as an instrument to disfigure, or transfigure the subject so as to produce a radical metamorphosis. The denigrating image references Jean-François Lyotard's belief that realism always stands somewhere between academicism and kitsch, as it does Walter Benjamin's call for a flash of recognition, a truth that appears in a moment of danger and is never seen again. [3]

Against a backdrop of the New York School's "pure" painting, Leon Golub illustrates one form of infrarealism that bridges the distance between modernism and post modernism. Golub enjoined the traditions of realism and history painting to chronicle modernism's passage from the active to the passive voice. His figurative tableaux mediate between high American abstraction and post-war European expressionism to expose the inadequacy of autonomous abstraction to portray the depths of the psyche, the dehumanization to which history has succumbed. With vitriolic irony, Golub invoked a "grand" style popular in academic art of the past, one that sought to depict great events, frequently with allegorical, religious or military import. Paradoxically, these are subjects that Joshua Reynolds considered venerable, "familiar and interesting to all without being degraded by the vulgarism of ordinary life in any country." Derived from the patriarchal and imperial traditions of Greece and Rome, Golub's series such as "Riot" and "Mercenaries" attacked the past even as it parodied pretensions of the present such as the heroic, transcendent aspirations of the American sublime. To the extent that avant-garde art has been considered by some a "historical concept," one that treats artistic phenomenon not so much as an aesthetic fact as a sociological one, we would do well to view such work more centrally in light of its entanglements of dominance, power and moral deprivation. We should also bear in mind the importance of Gustave Courbet's "Realist Manifesto" to the re-envisionment of history painting as the prototype for modernism's collective rebellion.

In an interview with Matthew Baigell in 1981 Golub described his work as a realist art "because it essays to show power, to make power manifest as it is frequently encountered…This is how it is," he said, "this is how power is configured in events and actions, and perhaps this is how it's abstractly structured in our society." Power is re-configured in Golub's painting to collapse canonical tenets of originality, moral autonomy and essentialism into "more or less active" inversions of social and art historical order; it perverts canonical modernism and transfigures it in terms of the action of an Aristotelian tragedy. Golub's "Vietnam" series reechoes the agonism of the avant-garde through figures that are both brutal and victimized by humiliation and torture, objectified, distanced, charged with the psychic tension of the individual and the artist. They address the duress and rupture of contemporary experience, its cuts and erosions, accumulations of surface bravura exposed with a meat cleaver to reveal the canvas' wounds. They paraphrase the text of Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," in which the officer describes the efficacy of the punishment apparatus on its victim: "You have seen how difficult it is to decipher the script with one's eyes," boasts the officer, "but our man deciphers it with his wounds." Golub's figuration looks past formal reductionism to a condition of moral reduction, a condition that assaults our sensibilities and impoverishes decency. Unflinching and confrontational his dramatis personae render history through horrendous mimesis, a misshapen and redundant dimension based in grotesque acts that in their brutality elicit fear as well as pity. These are the self-same emotions required by Aristotle to effect catharsis, the purging of emotion on which all tragedy depends.

Aristotle considered fear and pity complex states of mind that require a comprehension of the full measure of another's distress and the projection of that condition upon ourselves - a form of call and response in which the call of human suffering elicits the response of feelings of compassion. For the modern age it is by no means certain that society retains the capacity to experience compassion to the suffering of others or to express Aristotelian passion and emotion in any but the most self-gratifying form. What counts in Golub's transfigured realism is not so much the modern gesturalism of the artist, the self-expression of the individual soul in conflict, as it is art's gesture on behalf of humanity - an archaic instinct directed towards the goal of relationship and social union, one that seeks to abolish the distance between artist and viewer, society and the individual. For Golub, such an instinct, born of a memory of value, resists effacement through insistent figuration. We recognize in Golub's transfigured realism its capacity to convey compassion, the bridging element necessary not merely to unite modernism with post-modernism but necessary to the pursuit of the sensus communis, the enlarged thought, the reflective moral purpose of the twentieth century. "The magic of compassion," wrote Hannah Arendt, "was that it opened the heart of the sufferer to the sufferings of others, whereby it established and confirmed the 'natural' bond between men. Where passion, the capacity for suffering, and compassion, the capacity for suffering with others, ended," she offered, "vice began." [4]

Ortega y Gasset described an epidermal relationship to the human family by means of an analogy to persons present at a dying man's bedside. Wife, doctor, reporter, and painter witness one and the same event, yet each is impressed in a different way so that their several aspects have hardly anything in common. The wife is not simply "present" in the scene, he notes, "she is in it. She does not behold it, she lives it." The doctor, a professional, is several degrees removed from the emotional center with the reporter in his objectivity, having lost all emotional contact with the dying man. Gasset comes to the painter whose purely perceptive attitude fails to perceive the event in its entirety through a maximum of distance and a minimum of feeling intervention. [5]

Golub's transfigured realism succeeds in bridging this gap, modernism's gap, between being within the connective tissue of humanity and being purely perceptive to its history as a pictorial agent. His empathic force owes to human solidarization, an ultimately libertarian idea born of French Revolutionary ideology that equated virtue with the welfare of the people. As a moral imperative it raised compassion to the highest political virtue, for it was formed of sympathy for the sufferings, misfortune, and unhappiness of the lowest classes, the vulgar, and the marginalized, not dissimilar from the victims of Golub's mercenaries. Yet conceived in terms of metaphoric formalism, his work unites itself with modernism, for it elevates grim reality to a field saturated with vivid color, where the intrinsic power of the artwork and not the critical edifice still holds the capacity to ennoble. Here modernism hovers between abstraction and representation, between monolithic centeredness and the pluralism of all that is to follow. In Golub's moving reenactments, we encounter a space of redoubled power, a reflective space in which to ponder the limits of insensibility.

It was Arnold Hauser in The Philosophy of Art History who described the notion of "style" in art historical parlance as a musical theme of which only variations may be known because a sum can never include more, an abstraction always less, than the whole from which it was derived. In this spirit, it may be that the overarching movement of American modernism, its aspiration to aesthetic judgment, to life beyond itself, and to the sensus communis of posterity should be conceived in terms of conscience rather than of grandeur in terms of a transfigured social realism rather than of transcendence.


Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 83.

Meyer Schapiro, "The Social Bases of Art," in Social Realism:Art as a Weapon, Ed. By David Shapiro, New York:Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1973, pp. 118-127.

Walter Benjamin, "Theses on a Philosophy of History," Illuminations, New York:Schocken Books, 1968, p. 255.

Arendt, op cit., p. 261.

Ibid., pp. 16-17.

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